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Ambitious Blueprint Poses Test for Congress

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 26, 2009

In the budget he will submit to Congress today, President Obama will outline an agenda that confronts the era's most intractable problems, from a tattered financial system that has helped fuel a deepening recession to health-care, education and energy policies that have long defied meaningful reform.

It amounts to a long work order for a legislature that has seen its productivity sag in recent years. Mired in partisan divisions, Congress has produced few bills of sweeping impact since the end of President George W. Bush's first term. Now Obama is asking lawmakers to deliver legislation on the scale of the No Child Left Behind education bill or the Medicare prescription drug benefit -- two of Bush's signature achievements -- roughly once a month.

"It's a large agenda, but the American people wanted large change, and it was really a large election," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said yesterday.

A guiding principle of the Obama administration, articulated in the president's address to Congress on Tuesday night and implicit in the expansive policy goals set forth in his first budget, is that the economic crisis has heightened the desire for change that voters expressed in November, creating a once-in-a-generation opportunity for bold policy shifts.

Many Democrats have expressed trepidation about the lofty expectations that Obama has set and are keenly aware that the party could pay a steep price in the 2010 midterm elections if the promises are not fulfilled. At a White House meeting yesterday with House and Senate leaders, Obama noted that polls showed the Democratic Congress's popularity rising with the passage of the stimulus bill, despite Republicans' near-unanimous opposition because of the package's heavy spending programs.

On Tuesday, Obama closed his speech with a plea for Congress to get behind his ambitious goals. "If we come together and lift this nation from the depths of this crisis," he said, "if we put our people back to work and restart the engine of our prosperity, if we confront without fear the challenges of our time and summon that enduring spirit of an America that does not quit, then someday years from now, our children can tell their children that this was the time when we performed, in the words that are carved into this very chamber, 'Something worthy to be remembered.' "

He had just spent an hour sketching out a new fund for auto, college and small-business loans; a housing plan aimed at slowing the foreclosure epidemic; and a federal overhaul of troubled banks. Obama sought "tough new common-sense rules of the road" for financial firms to prevent the types of abuses that exacerbated the crisis. "I ask this Congress to join me in doing whatever proves necessary," he said.

And those were just the near-term goals. The president targeted three policy areas for significant investment: energy, health care and education. All would require major legislation that would fall under the jurisdiction of a tangle of committees -- including the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means panels, which hold at least partial sway over energy and health initiatives, and which would assemble the tax package Obama is seeking to raise revenues from businesses.

Last week, after Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus package, House and Senate Democratic leadership aides complained that recovery-related measures could force more popular initiatives to the sidelines, possibly for months. A Senate leadership aide predicted that one casualty could be health-care reform. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the point man on the initiative in the Senate, is battling brain cancer, and the failed nomination of former senator Thomas A. Daschle as secretary of health and human services has removed the man who had been expected to be the central administration figure in the fight. "The best-case scenario is later in the year," the Senate aide said.

In his speech, Obama urged Congress to keep health care on the fast track. "Let there be no doubt," he said. "Health-care reform cannot wait, it must not wait, and it will not wait another year."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged the challenges but, speaking to reporters yesterday, said he will attempt to meet Obama's timetable for health-care reform. "By the end of this year, I want to do something significant dealing with health care," Reid said.

Signaling just how broad the agenda has become -- and how expectations have risen -- the liberal group Environment America issued this unusually bold declaration in response to the president's speech: "Obama calls on Congress to save the planet."

And although the ability of Congress will be severely tested in attempting to move such a heavy load, that test is not likely to begin on the floor of either chamber until late in the spring.

In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) mapped out a six-week stretch of legislative work filled with items left over from previous years, such as the voting rights measure for the District of Columbia that is moving through the Senate and a federal lands bill, as well as the mandatory but cumbersome tasks of passing the annual budget outline and reauthorizing programs such as AmeriCorps. In the Senate, the short-term agenda includes a huge spending bill, another 2008 holdover that passed the House yesterday, along with the budget and financial regulatory reform.

Hoyer said big-ticket items such as a health-care overhaul will not come up until May, at the earliest. And his legislative timeline assumes that the administration produces an Iraq and Afghanistan war-funding bill without the turbulence of previous war-funding debates.

Congress does not need to approve additional war funding until June, but Democratic leaders hope the White House will use the intervening months to unify lawmakers around its plans to withdraw troops from Iraq while bulking up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Republicans keeping score during Obama's speech Tuesday took note not only of what the president included but also of the pressing items that he excluded, such as trade agreements left unresolved by the previous Congress.

Also unmentioned by Obama was labor's top initiative for the new Congress, a controversial bill that would make it easier for workers to join unions. Republicans have vowed a procedural quagmire should Democrats push the bill.

Of course, much of the critical action will take place off the chamber floors and in committee hearing rooms and closed-door negotiations with lawmakers, White House advisers and private-sector stakeholders. This week, House and Senate committees continued hearings on global warming, gearing up for legislative battles that are expected to be waged in the summer in the House and possibly a little later in the Senate.

The House and Senate are expected to act this spring on an alternative energy bill that adds to the incentives included in the stimulus package. And Reid announced yesterday that the Senate will move ahead with a "smart grid" bill to modernize the country's electricity infrastructure.

Senate leaders have sent mixed signals about the timing of "cap-and-trade" legislation to battle global warming by setting carbon emission limits. Reid told The Washington Post last week that he hoped for a floor debate "later this summer," but others have suggested that the contentious battle will probably not unfold until the end of the year.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is drafting the Senate bill, said yesterday that her goal is to have the legislation "ready for action" before the international global-warming summit in Copenhagen in December. Boxer said the administration would prefer to have the legislation "signed, sealed and delivered" before the summit, but she added, "As long as we're making progress and on the way, that helps."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, estimated that about a third of the legislative initiatives in Obama's Tuesday speech could go through his committee at some point this year. "Most all of which is doable, I think," Miller said yesterday. The lawmaker recently told the new education secretary, Arne Duncan, that the items on their mutual agendas were too numerous to discuss by phone and instead suggested a dinner date to review the laundry list.

Cabinet secretaries such as Duncan have been doubly handicapped, Miller said, because very few of their deputies are in place and so much of their initial focus was on promoting the stimulus legislation. But the recovery plan also provided a bounty of resources for Miller and Duncan to craft the reforms they want to implement.

"I really think the momentum is with the president," Miller said.

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